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‘China Threatens India with ‘Liquid Bomb’’

Published: 28th Nov, 2020

With India-China relations hitting its lowest point since the 1962 war, border infrastructure has come under intense scrutiny.


With India-China relations hitting its lowest point since the 1962 war, border infrastructure has come under intense scrutiny. The construction of several dams along the Yarlung (Brahmaputra) river on the Chinese side has been a repeated cause for concern for Indian officials and the local people, whose livelihoods and security depend on the river.


  • After troubling India militarily in the Himalayan region of Ladakh, Beijing could now hurt the South Asian country by drying up the crucial rivers that flow into the country through Tibet.
  • China has indicated that it is going ahead with building mega-dams on the lower reaches of the Yarlung Tsangpo, which flows from Tibet into northeast India.
  • Beijing’s control over the key rivers flowing into India gives it a chokehold on India’s economy, effectively crippling India’s interests in the North East region.
  • The country’s occupation of Tibet, which is often called the “Third Pole”, owing to its vast freshwater and glacial resources, gives it a strategic stranglehold to dominate the bilateral discourse with India.

Third Pole

  • The Tibetan plateau is often called the “Third Pole”, owing to its glacial expanses and vast reserves of fresh water.
  • For as many as nine countries in the surrounding region, the status of rivers emerging from the plateau is a key concern.
  • China has claimed express ownership over Tibet’s waters, making it an upstream controller of seven of South Asia’s mightiest rivers – the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween, Yangtze and Mekong.
  • These rivers flow into Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, and form the largest river run-off from any single location.
  • It is estimated that 718 billion cubic meters of surface water flow out of the Tibetan plateau and the Chinese-administered regions of Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia to neighboring countries each year.
  • Nearly half that water, 48%, runs directly into India.
  • The rivers emerging from the Tibetan plateau remain vital for about nine neighboring nations in the region and the disputes about the distribution of waters have lingered for decades.
  • However, the new Chinese belligerence is explained by the tensions in Ladakh that have worsened this year with India.
    • At least 20 Indian soldiers were killed while clashing with PLA in the region this year, while the count of Chinese casualties remains unknown.


What are China’s plans?

  • Since 2010, China has planned hydropower projects on the river, known in India as the Brahmaputra, to harness energy in the middle reaches of the river.
  • Now the country is focusing on the lower reaches of the river, closer to India, which could create challenges for the river’s utility in India.
  • According to SCMP, at least 11 hydroelectric projects along the river have been operating or being planned by China over the past decade.
  • The largest among the three known to be in operation is Zangmu, which started to fully operate in 2015.
  • Hydropower stations in Bayu, Jiexi, Langta, Dakpa, Nang, Demo, Namcha, and Metok towns in Tibet are either on the drawing board or under construction.
  • The middle basin of the Yarlung river is closer to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) – a 3,488 km unmarked de facto boundary between China and India that has seen decades of claims and counterclaims.
  • The country’s new plans for harnessing the lower basin could potentially dry up the resources of the river resulting in a significant challenge to the Indian needs.

Brahmaputra River Basin

  • The Brahmaputra River Basin consists of the Ganges and Brahmaputra, which originates in Tibet and the Barak River starting in India. 
  • The Brahmaputra River flows for 1,800 miles through Tibet, India, and Bangladesh. 
  • Starting in the Himalayas in Tibet as the Tsangpo River, the river flows eastward for 704 miles. 

    • The Brahmaputra is identified as the flow downstream of the meeting of three tributaries, namely Luhit, Dibang and Dihang, near Sadiya.
    • The link of Brahmaputra with Yarlung Tsangpo, which originates from the Angsi glacier near Mt. Kailash, was discovered rather recently.
    • Out of the total length of the Brahmaputra of 2,880 km, 1,625 km is in Tibet flowing as Yarlung Tsangpo, 918 km is in India known as Siang, Dihang and Brahmaputra and the rest 337 km in Bangladesh has the name Jamuna till it merges into Padma near Goalando.
  • At the Shuomatan Point, the river bends and enters India crossing the Assam Valley. 
  • It then flows south through Bangladesh exiting at the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta into the Bay of Bengal.

Is there no water-sharing agreement?

  • India does not have a water-sharing agreement with China, but both sides share hydrological data.
  • The two rival countries are signatories to the data-sharing treaty signed in 2008, for the Sutlej and Brahmaputra in order to better manage the shared watercourses. 
  • Due to the tension arising after the Dokalam dispute in 2017, China had stopped sharing data related to the release of water in the Brahmaputra river along with India.

Why Brahmaputra is important?

The Brahmaputra River flows for more than 3,000 kilometers through Tibet, India and Bangladesh on its journey from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal. It is of great importance to India for following reasons.

  • Ecological significance: In terms of its ecological significance for India, its basin is shared by Arunachal Pradesh (41.9%), Assam (36.3%), Meghalaya (6.1%), Nagaland (5.6%), Sikkim (3.8%) and West Bengal (6.3%).
    • Biodiversity: The Brahmaputra basin belongs to the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot, one of the 12 hotspots of mega biodiversity on Earth recognized by the World Conservation Union(IUCN).
    • Unique physiographic habitat: Its unique physiographic and climatic provide unique habitats for a variety of flora and fauna, including many endangered species.
      • The basin is reported to have about 7,233 animal species that include 195 species of mammals, 607 of birds, 115 of reptiles, 54 of amphibians, 267 of fish, and 4,953 insect species. The plant resources of this region are enormous and represent the rich floristic wealth of India.
    • Socio-economic significance: The river is of great importance for the socio-economic life of the people in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. The river valley is home to many tribal communities that are dependent on the river for their livelihoods.
    • Geopolitical importance: Brahmaputra river is of great importance in the present-day geopolitical context since it is also linked to Sino-Indian border disputes. The two countries have contested claims in disputed areas called South Tibet in China and Arunachal Pradesh in India, which now controls the area. 

What are the environmental concerns?

  • The Brahmaputra is a perennial river, with several peculiar characteristics due to its geography and prevailing climatic conditions.
  • Inhabitants along the river have to deal with two floods annually, one caused by the melting of the Himalayan snow in summer and the other due to the monsoon flows.
  • The frequency of these floods have increased and are devastating due to climate change and its impact on high and low flows.
  • These pose a concern for the population and food security in the lower riparian states of India and Bangladesh.
  • The river is in itself dynamic as frequent landslides and geological activity force it to change course very often.

Water constraints

As India and China continue to grow demographically as well as economically amid increased consumption among its citizenry, both nations face water constraints.

The case of China

  • Population stress: China, which is home to close to 20 per cent of the world’s population, has only 7 per cent of its water resources.
  • Rapid urbanization and pollution: Severe pollution of its surface and groundwater caused by rapid industrialisation is a source of concern for Chinese planners.
  • Uneven water availability: China’s southern regions are water-rich in comparison to the water-stressed northern part. The southern region is a major food producer and has significant industrial capacity as a consequence of more people living there.
  • China has an ambitious plan to link its south and north through canals, aqueducts and linking of major rivers to ensure water security.
    • Blocking rivers: In pursuit of these goals, China, being an upper riparian state in Asia, has been blocking rivers like the Mekong and its tributaries, affecting Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
    • Damage to environment: It has caused immense damage to the environment and altered river flows in the region. China sees these projects as a continuation of their historic tributary system as the smaller states have no means of effectively resisting or even significant leverage in negotiations.
    • Chinese projects in the Himalayas have only recently begun to operate amid protests from India.

The case of India

  • Water-stress: India is severely water-stressed as well. In summer, a vast majority of urban areas face water shortage.
  • Population burden: Similar to China, India has 17 per cent of the world’s population and 4 per cent of water.
  • Uneven climatic conditions: While a majority of India’s population reside in the Gangetic plains, the southern and western regions experience harsh and dry summer and the rainfall is scarce and erratic in the eastern coast.

What can be the way ahead for India?

  • Optimum utilisation:The solution lies in the optimum utilisation of the Himalayan watershed, especially the rivers originating in India. The ambitious project of linking of rivers will also help in case of any crisis.
  • Optimal sharing of western rivers: India should also harvest its share optimally out of the western rivers as per Indus River Treaty with Pakistan. As of now, we are not utilising our own share optimally. 
  • Strengthening disaster-management system: India should also consider strengthening our disaster-management system, earmarking key areas where its people may get affected.
  • Effective strategy: The concrete disaster management strategy will save precious lives in the future. 
  • Assessment of China’s plans: For India, the one domain in which China’s status as the “upper riparian” provides an almost insurmountable challenge is in ensuring shared access to transboundary rivers. And as the recent clashes have made clear, India needs to assess how China might “weaponise” its advantage over those countries downstream. Control over these rivers effectively gives China a chokehold on India’s economy.

Wrapping up

Due to rising demand, extensive use and climate change have all aggravated water security problems in the region, in fact in entire South Asia.   Amidst the clamour about Chinese projects on Brahmaputra, there has hardly been an objective data-based analysis of the popular “Brahma hypothesis”. These contentions deserve to be examined through data, hydrological regimes, upstream interventions and their downstream implications.

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